This summer marks Maria Grazia Chiuri's first anniversary at Dior. Breaking away from the duo she made up with Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino, the fashion world has watched curiously as the Italian designer has been establishing her solo voice over the past year, through feminist fencing influences to daywear explorations into the color blue and haute couture gowns worthy of fairytales. But it wasn't until she transported us to the desert of Calabasas, of all places, that everything made sense. Thursday evening, as the sun set over the sandy hills of Los Angeles, Maria Grazia's first cruise collection for Dior trotted through safari tents in the untouched dust of the California wilderness, not a skyscraper or Eiffel Tower in sight. And there she materialized: the pioneer woman, who's been embodied in all the designer's collections along the way, from Valentino to Dior. Only this was her most rootsy guise — an ancient and almost tribal incarnation of the very human femininity Maria Grazia portrays through her work, in a no-nonsense determination met with delicate fragility.
"When you think about California, you think about big, open space," she reflected backstage, before the show, her signature artillery of rings clacking with her every gesture. "Sometimes our references to L.A. are more about the Oscars and red carpets, but I think people like to live here because it's a place where you're in contact with the natural elements; where you can have your red carpet but also a different style of life. So I decided to show this other part of California, because Mr. Dior went to California in 1947." She first visited the Sunshine State with her husband decades ago, before her children were born, on a road trip that opened her eyes to American life. "It's another vision of America. If you only see the cities you have no idea about America." As it turned out, even Calabasas has more of a heartland to offer than the highroad that's played backdrop to Keeping Up With the Kardashians for the past ten years (they live not far from where the show took place, but celebrity attendance was limited to the likes of Angelica Huston, Rihanna, and Solange Knowles — who performed at the after party).
The show was inspired by the works and wardrobe of Georgia O'Keeffe, and the artist's puritan, almost Victorian uniform easily fed into Maria Grazia's pioneer dresses. They were colored in the warmth of O'Keeffe's landscape paintings and patterned, embroidered, and embellished with the nativist nature motifs Maria Grazia has been developing since her Dior debut. It was down-to-earth glamor shown in a part of the world that understands this better than anyone: California, with its co-existing lust for extravaganza and New Age fetish for simplicity. A hilltop hike in the morning, a touch of Botox in the afternoon, and an artisanal matcha milkshake to finish you off — Los Angeles is the land of contrasts. "It's the real life. You see these famous people and red carpets and big dresses, but the next day they get in their sneakers and go to the yoga center," Maria Grazia said, and it was part of the point she wanted to make by bringing her first cruise show to California.
"Women are often defined by others. Now we have to define ourselves and what we want," she noted. "And I think this argument is very important now in fashion, because it's possible for a designer to translate a house's heritage in a contemporary way, for different women. You can work with the heritage of a brand, but sometimes that doesn't work with women's real lifestyles. I try to work in this way: it's a simple example, but if you look at all the jackets in the Dior archive they're all closed — not open. Now nobody only closes their jackets. You can wear them open. If you don't work in this sense, there's no sense. Now, fashion has to translate these elements in a contemporary language, and sometimes it's not so easy." Introducing Christian Dior's dainty tailoring to hippie ranch dressing perhaps wasn't the safest bet, but like the pioneer women before her, Maria Grazia's strive for discovery paid off.
"I think she's a little bit shamanic," the designer said of her cruise character. "You feel these women, who are in contact with the natural elements — and I really believe in that. In any case, we have to feel our instincts and what we really want. It's good for all the women," she laughed. "And also for all the men!" It's the belief Maria Grazia has been designing by since she joined Dior last summer, and in the Californian desert sunset, where flats-wearing guests wrapped themselves in blankets and wafted off exotic bugs as the show progressed, she executed it with a kind of clarity we rarely get to experience in a fashion system that seems to be in a perpetual rush. For all the shows she's put on during her first year at Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri has emerged as a designer who does things her own way at her own pace. And thank heavens for that.
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography courtesy Dior